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Bára Sigfúsdóttir / grip

Bára Sigfúsdóttir is an Icelandic choreographer who lives and works in Brussels. She studied at P.A.R.T.S. from 2008 to 2011. Prior to this she followed dance training at the Icelandic Academy of Arts and the Amsterdam University of the Arts (AHK). Since her studies, Bára has worked as a performer with, among others, Or and Oran dance company, Miet Warlop (replacing in the production Springville), Iris Bouche and Kobe Proesmans (for HETPALEIS), Aëla Labbe and Janne-Camilla Lyster. In recent years her own work has come more to the forefront. In 2012, she created the solo On the other side of a sand dune, in collaboration with the Icelandic musician Sóley. This was followed in 2015 by THE LOVER, in collaboration  with the French photographer Noémie Goudal, architect Jeroen Verrecht/88888 and Icelandic musician Borko. THE LOVER was selected that same year for Circuit X, an initiative that gives five promising theatre makers the chance to make an extensive tour of Flanders and the Netherlands.

What's interesting about Sigfúsdóttir's work is that the seemingly more abstract ‒ and in this sense ‘difficult’ ‒ dance is precisely the result of a far-reaching pursuit of a wide accessibility.

For Bára Sigfúsdóttir the body and movement are the raw material that she shapes in response to human and societal issues. "Movement can be anything and can come from anywhere," she explains. "Any small detail of my body can be just as interesting. For me creation surpasses the aesthetic or the display of skill. It's not about being more beautiful or less beautiful. It is simpler and more fundamental than that: I take the human body as the starting point. What I cherish about the body live on stage is the vulnerability, the fragility in just being alive".

In her creations she takes something tangible as the starting point or concept – in On the other side of a sand dune the memories of old Icelandic women and in THE LOVER the relationship between man and nature – to arrive at new movements and body images through improvisation. The movements or images she creates on stage are charged by the committed concept which was taken as the starting point of the creation, but thanks to their simplicity and abstraction equally remain very open to the spectators' interpretation.

Bára Sigfúsdóttir expects the spectators to set their imagination to work, but also counts on the fact that, as human beings, it's impossible for us to observe without affording meaning to what we observe, without instantly associating the images we see on the stage with what we also carry around in our baggage. The considerable room for the audience's interpretation that Sigfúsdóttir strives to maintain in her productions, originates from a strong desire to make work that is accessible to a very diverse audience; dance that is not interwoven with codes that you are only able to decipher if you've previously observed a lot of art or dance. The body is the meeting ground between the dancer and the audience, that which they, with all their differences, inevitably have in common. What's interesting about Sigfúsdóttir's work is that the seemingly more abstract ‒ and in this sense ‘difficult’ ‒ dance is precisely the result of a far-reaching pursuit of a wide accessibility. The only code that spectators have to crack is that of their self-confidence to allow their imagination to act as the decisive factor.

A key moment for Bára Sigfúsdóttir with regard to the creation of On the other side of a sand dune was her introduction to the British theatre director Tim Crouch. "When I play Hamlet and I say 'Hello, I'm Hamlet', then I am also Hamlet. I need nothing more to prove that, such as a costume or set," Crouch states. Our imagination is so powerful that we instantly project images and references. Sigfúsdóttir explored this idea in On the other side of a sand dune, in which she depicted a character that exists independent of time or space. For this piece she interviewed a number of old Icelandic women in old people's homes, in the countryside and in Reykjavik, and derived inspiration from the stories of their youth, their views on life and how the world and our relationship with nature has drastically changed in just a few generations. All these stories came together in a single narrative in which Sigfúsdóttir navigates through time and space. In the piece a theatrical scene is presented in which she recounts the story of a man with whom she is in love and casually lets slip that he is 85 years old. Such a statement initially causes the audience to be surprised or to laugh, because there is a young woman standing on stage. But when the monologue continues, it becomes clear that the figure she embodies at that particular moment could be the same age as the man. A few words or hints enable the audience to grasp that, without Sigfúsdóttir having to change costume or make explicit statements.   

“How can I be present, without being too much myself? How can I be some body. That's quite a challenge: a performer is always present, you can’t avoid that in your work."

While On the other side of a sand dune is a highly theatrical production, THE LOVER is purely concerned with movement. In the creation of THE LOVER Bára Sigfúsdóttir went in search of various qualities of presence on stage and a more transparent way of using her body. “How can I be present, without being too much myself? How can I be some body. That's quite a challenge: a performer is always present, you can’t avoid that in your work." How to cope with the fact that your body is what it is, with all the characteristics it has in the eyes of the audience - thin, blond, white, tall - without affording it additional meaning yourself? How to cope with yourself as a body, in the most basic manner - not anonymously, but also not personally – so that the audience can feel connected?

THE LOVER is a piece about the relationship between man and nature. The previous clip is part of the opening scene in which Sigfúsdóttir sits down, with her arms stretched out and her hands placed on the floor in front of her. Her elbows start to rotate very slowly and move forwards and backwards, while the palms of her hands remain firmly on the floor. The movements are very slight, which means that the audience (from a distance) can't be sure whether or not it has missed 'the beginning'. But there is plenty of time to find out and observe the movements as soon as they gradually increase. It is an extremely simple image that contains many possible references linked to the production's theme. The long arms appear to be pillars of buildings, or trunks of trees with the fingers as the roots - references to the ruin that nature is gradually reclaiming in Goudal's photos, which are later portrayed  large scale on to the rear wall. But the bent arms could also conjure up images of the shaky legs of a newborn foal. Sigfúsdóttir largely worked with the joints to develop the movement material for THE LOVER: the parts of the body that instinctively feel vulnerable. The elbows are the link between straight and 'broken' arms. By isolating the movement of the arms in the opening scene from the rest of her body and sitting, as it were, from a distance and also looking at what her arms are doing, Sigfúsdóttir also creates a feeling of alienation, in which the human body appears to be a 'thing'. This also gives rise to a register of questions about the relationship between man - nature - and thing.

The next clip from the performance reveals the extent to which one movement can vary considerably in the meaning the audience projects on to it, as well as the extent to which room for interpretation is also really demarcated by the performer and her skill.

Sigfúsdóttir's search in THE LOVER is that for a presence on stage that is as transparent as possible. Another formulation that she uses for this is that she does not want to provide any 'commentary' to the movement that she performs while she's performing it. How can the body perform something that depicts the body itself, without really adding anything? In a scene in this clip Bára Sigfúsdóttir slowly moves her tongue in and out of her mouth until the tongue starts to lead its own life, and for so long that the spit gradually starts to drip from the corners of her mouth. It is an image (that goes further in the performance than in this clip) that could evoke visceral reactions and easily be over the top if the performer displayed a powerful intensity in her gaze or facial expressions. However, Sigfúsdóttir keeps her face and the rest of her body consciously relaxed and neutral, although she is clearly concentrating on the task at hand. It makes the scene very powerful, because the protruding and bent tongue is highly charged as an image on the one hand, but on the other is restricted by Sigfúsdóttir to what it is in its pure physicality: a tongue.

The clip also beautifully demonstrates how the production with Borko's sound and the extraordinary set by 88888, with Goudal's photos, is more a Gesamtkunstwerk than a 'dance production'.

Delphine Hesters

Delphine Hesters is head of performing arts at Flanders Arts Institute. She published, a.o., in Etcetera about arts policy and conducted research about the contemporary dance community and dance careers in Flanders and Brussels.